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Religion's a subject that most games prefer to leave out of the equation, and with good reason; it's a touchy subject at best, and at its worst, leads to violence of many degrees. Yet religion, and the concept of a god, is still a driving narrative force in many games today. Seems like the notion of a god, a heaven and a hell, and the idea of unwavering faith have left their mark on the gaming industry, even if most games take a secular stance on those subjects.
Let's get something clear: With this blog, I want to show you the interesting ways our hobby uses the stories from religion, god, and faith, to weave intriguing yarns and create memorable sequences or characters. I don't want to debate religion because honestly, nothing will come of it anyways; other than you hurting my feelings. I don't like it when someone hurts my feelings. There's crying, ego flies all over the message boards, and people start TYPING IN ALL CAPS and it just gets ugly. So please, no. If you feel compelled to argue about religion, feel free to send me a message. That being said, if I got some facts about religious customs and history incorrect, feel free to correct it.
Also, spoiler warning: I'll try not to divulge too much, but since most game stories use religion and God as a major plot twist, major spoilers are inevitable for some of the games I talk about below. Best to skip a game's section if you're trying to go spoiler-free.
The Assassin's Creed series is widely known for its unique transition between the past, present, and future to tell its stories. The basic premise is this: Present-day, Desmond uses a DNA-decoding device called the Animus, which enables him to live through the lives of his ancestors as history truly happened. Through 11th century assassin Altair, Desmond fights the Templar Order for the first time. During his travails, Altair attains an Apple of Eden, an artifact left by Those Who Came Before.
This Apple, and other artifacts like it, set up for players a new twist: humans were fashioned as a labor force for this Precursor Race, which mostly died off due to a cataclysmic event. The legacy of these Precursors still lives on in the religions of the human race, most notably the Greeks and Romans; most characters are called by names like Juno and Minerva.
Assassin's Creed 3's ending gives another interesting religion-themed twist: if the world ends, Desmond will be among the survivors, and his warnings to the human race will be passed on through time, first as what they are; warnings. As time moves onward, his warnings would be utilized in religion as commandments. Assassin's Creed is known for how it pokes holes into the fabric of human history, filling those voids with conspiracy theories and alternate events. It does the same with religion too, as what else are the Precursors but elaborated, alternate versions of Greek religion. What are Desmond's Warnings but a twist on the real-life 10 Commandments?
Precursor races are nothing new to us in the real world. No scientific evidence solidifies one existed, but that doesn't stop people from believing legends, and fringe theories. Such debated places include Mayan ruins, the Pyramids of Giza, and Stonehenge. Sometimes mysterious objects are dug up from the earth with an apparent clarity of construction that baffles scientists, or excites the UFO fanatic. As for a civilization the likes of The Ones Who Came Before, the scientific community has yet to find concrete evidence.
It really sucks to be Isaac Clarke; the poor guy never gets a break. He goes from derelict ship to space station to planet, and the Necromorphs seem to follow him wherever he goes. On top of the nightmares he must fight in the physical world, Clarke faces an equally potent mental enemy, haunted as he is by alien markers that make the occasional appearance during his fight for survival.
Not much is known about these markers, other than they're not of manmade origin, they have a habit of making people's sanity take a dive off the deep end, and wherever they go, the Necromorphs aren't far behind. These markers wouldn't be nearly as dangerous as they are if it weren't for a religion called Unitology, which worships these Markers as divine objects, which will take humanity to the final step in its evolution as a species. Unfortunately, this "final evolutionary step" involves death and eventual reanimation by the Necromorph Plague. This notion doesn't hinder many Unitologists, as they welcome the Necromorphs as holy beings, and often commit suicide for future "ascension" or let the walking space zombies take them over willingly.
Unitology, the alien Markers, and the Necromorphs fit together in a conspiracy of the ages. It's no coincidence that a religion that believes reanimation after death is "ascendance" becomes rapidly popular at the same time a Marker, which induces mass-suicide, and a fatally parasitic plague that reanimates the dead into grotesque killing machines, all converge in the same time frame. Thanks to Unitology, Clarke has to worry just as much about his fellow humans trying to kill him, just as much as the knife-arms the Necromorphs love to use to slash their prey.
The religion of Unitology involves human sacrifice and an afterlife, both of which are commonly found in religious sects across the world, from tribal Voodoo rituals to even Christianity. Reanimation after death in some form is a commonality. However, reincarnation into a space-zombie that looks like it didn't get done eating a bowl of Top Ramen before it came back to life isn't something that happens on a daily basis in religious history.
If you've heard of Halo at all, you know of the Covenant: a conglomerate of aliens who have banded together to embark on The Great Journey. Their religion believes in a zealous pursuit of Forerunner technology, and the activation of the Halo Rings. However, they inconveniently fail to realize that activating said rings will wipe out all sentient life in the galaxy.
Also inconveniently, they believe that the Forerunners, these godly beings who created the Rings, gave to them the responsibility of replacing them as the Gods of the Milky Way. Why is this notion terribly inconvenient? Well, there's the part where humans comes in: these Covenant recognize the similar appearance of humans to the Forerunner, and notice that the Forerunners somehow must have protected these puny humans from the Halos for some reason. And this won't stand. Their stubborn belief that they, not the humans, are the chosen people of the Forerunners makes them angry. Which is an understatement. Because they decide to glass everyone. And by "glass" I don't mean make hand-crafted vases for us. "Glass" meaning along the lines "commit a genocidal crusade against humanity with the only purpose being to make sure none survive." Luckily for us, we're able to survive this genocide once the smarter race, the Elites, realize their Order's mistakes and turn against it.
The Forerunners also had a religion of sorts. Their history details the Precursors, a race of beings who helped them evolve, much like the Forerunners did for Humans. Forerunner legend has it that these Precursors followed a creed that would lead races to Ascendancy, or technological prowess so great that they evacuate their physical forms and exist in some mumbo-jumbo ethereal plane. The Precursors passed the Mantle of Responsibility to the Forerunners, who in turn wanted to pass it to humanity (but the Covenant thought they had it; refer back to "genocidal crusade against humanity." Think of the current conflict as a really, really old love triangle involving alien gods, alien terrorists, and futuristic humans. Makes complete sense when you think about it.
History shows a plethora of horrific conquests on account of religion against a people. The Byzantine Empire carried out multiple, and theirs stand as the most infamous. Even American history is subject to a slow purge of the Native American tribes that thrived here at one point, but were driven out by settlers on account of Manifest Destiny.
The Elder Scrolls
The Elder Scrolls series is probably one of the few games that casts religion in a positive and negative light, and has a relatively complex religious history. In many of the games, players have the option to pray to the Nine, nine deities (aka, Aedra) who each have their own specialty: Akatosh - Dragon God of Time and the chief god of the pantheon; Arkay - God of Life and Death; Dibella - Goddess of Beauty; Julianos - God of Wisdom and Logic; Kynareth - Goddess of Nature; Mara - Mother Goddess and Goddess of Love; Stendarr - God of Mercy and Justice; Talos/Tiber Septim - God of War and Governance. Each town in Cyrodiil, and many throughout Tamriel (the land on which all TES games have taken place so far) has a temple in a town dedicated to a single deity, so each town is known across the land for being 'champions' of a specific deity. Along with these churches are shrines scattered across the countryside; some in villages, some outdoors, and some more in dungeons and caves. Each shrine can be prayed to by the player, the act of which will cure them of all ailments (except vampirism and lycanthropy), and give them perks so long as they were the last god prayed to. Praying to another god will remove the perks of the previous one.
Then there are disagreements. Yes, The Elder Scrolls series is deep enough to imitate similar dissent in the real world religions. Some believe that Talos, who was an ancient king and is considered by many to be a deity, is merely a man, and worship of him is egregious heresy (similar to Judaism's regard of Jesus). On top of these types of disagreements, there are Daedra who are basically lesser, evil, demi-gods. Each of these Daedra has had some hand in an Elder Scrolls game, usually offering the player weapons if they complete a task for them.
Verdict: Games rarely use religion as a positive driving force for a story. Usually, games like Dead Space or Halo put religious zealots at the antagonist spot, and give a secular hero the chance to defeat the oppressive, dangerous brainwashing said in-game religion promotes. Assassin's Creed paints religion as a possible necessity, a movement that will save lives on the whole, but will be corrupted over time by humanity's lust for power and control, and resume senseless bloodshed found in previous timelines. I can't really blame games from shunning away from advocating religion, as that topic is a touchy one at best, and one that kills people at worst. After all, games are supposed to be fun, and I guess most gamers prefer religion in their holidays and religious texts, not in their video games.
What's your favorite/least favorite in-game religion? I personally like the Daedra, simply because they're bad-@sses that give me weapons and armor that's often the best in the entire game.